The Storyteller

How to Raise a Literate Child

How to Raise a Literate Child

This is my mother within a year or two of my birth. When I see her wave at the camera, I almost feel as if it were a cheery wave at me from another world. There are many things that went into the making of a strange person such as myself. What my mother contributed, other than unstinting love over five decades. were all the stories.

First, as I was a little toddler lying in my crib at 2814 East 120th Street were the stories she made up herself. They were wonderful stories, and they were all in Hungarian. They all took place in a sötét erdö (a dark forest) and featured a tündérlány (fairy princess) who helped a little boy overcome all manner of ogres and other baddies.

When Mom was tired or her inventiveness wasn’t sufficient to satisfy my little inquiring mind, she picked up some children’s books at the library on East 116th Street and read them to me, first translating them into Hungarian. One of the first stories was a book that is still available today: The King’s Stilts by Dr. Seuss. I will never forget the picture of the king’s realm surrounded on all sides by tall levees and the encroaching water. (I still have a copy of the book, which I found on eBay and treasure.)

Then, when I started going to school, and my parents realized that Mrs. Idell and her colleagues had no idea how to teach a little Hungarian boy the English language, my parents decided to buy a house on East 176th Street in the Lee-Harvard area of Cleveland. Also, by that time, I had a little brother; and our apartment on East 120th Street just wasn’t big enough any more.

Sophie Paris was gifted with a fertile imagination. When she wanted to get a job as an Occupational Therapy Assistant (O.T.A.), she had to provide the name of the college she attended. Without any hesitation, she declared herself an alumna of the University of Hakapeszik in Budapest. A rough translation of Hakapeszik would be, “If s/he can get his/her hands on any food, he/she’ll eat.”

You see, Hungarian doesn’t have any gender-specific pronouns. Other than context, there is no way of telling whether he, she, or it is intended.

But that is a story for another day.